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Saturday, December 6, 2014

Like a Runaway Train: Author Day on Beat Street

Her Grand Central Station story runs on its own track, she says, hurtling back many years to a completely different world. It begins when she was newly married, in the middle of World War II.

“It was early in the year,” she said, “after my wedding in December. We were staying with my mother in New York, knowing he had to go off to basic training soon. Once he did, I’d go down to Washington to visit him on the weekends.

“I had to go back to New York on the train, and at that time, the trains were all full of soldiers. So instead of taking a train at seven or eight, I took a very late train and got back to Grand Central at two or three in the morning.

“Our apartment was in Brooklyn, but I didn’t want to take the subway home by myself at night. So I sat on a bench in Grand Central, and in the morning, I went to the bathroom there and washed my face. Then I went to work.”

Listening and imagining, I crept up and down the tunnels of those years, reaching back to see a dark-haired woman in a picture hat with gloves and a dark blue dress.

“There were other women there doing the same thing,” she said. “I wasn’t the only one who sat up all night.”

I closed my eyes while she was talking, and suddenly five, six, seven women appeared, all in picture hats with gloves and dark blue dresses. Coats… they would need coats too.

I decided on black wool, and some wore black bows in their hair to match. High heel shoes, no boots. These women were pretty, young and green like the first shoots of a plant stretching into the sun.

I thought of her sitting alone on a bench for hours after she’d disembarked from the train, with the other women sitting silently around her. Did they talk sometimes? Smile? Share a chocolate?

The turquoise sky of the backward zodiac curved over them, the noise of the station muffled somewhat by the darkness of early morning.

A day of work waited. A weekend with a loved one, just finished, might be in the future again for another month or two. And then the men would be shipped out—to the Philippines, to Europe, to the front lines.

Would their wives and children see them again?

The walls of Grand Central couldn’t answer and neither could the women sitting inside them. But they continued their comings and goings to and from this railway station, in the city of all cities, and somehow the days turned into history, theirs and mine, all of ours.

When I’m there now, I look up at Pegasus and the other constellation paintings. I look over at the benches and wonder if the women whose men went to war in the 1940s sat there. 

Looking at the benches, I think it’s over but it’s never over.

Here we are.

Pegasus, Grand Central Station: family photo